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‘Disabled people need to be recognised as sexual beings’

Disability doesn't take away a person's sexual identity. By supporting disabled people to have a healthy sex life, social care professionals will see the positive impact it can have, says Tuppy Owens

By Tuppy Owens

Sex is one of the most powerful human drives and those with disabilities share that drive. Some may therefore feel angry and resentful if this drive is ignored and sexual expression is denied to them.

The sexual needs of people with disabilities are exactly same as anyone else: to enjoy masturbation, sexual experimentation, and to enjoy their kind of sex with the gender/s of their choice. They definitely need privacy, and they may also need double beds, hoists, bedside rails, firm support cushions, sex toys, porn, massage, striptease or sexual services. Some even need support to enjoy even the most basic sexual pleasure such as masturbation, for example those with athetoid cerebral palsy, quadriplegics, those with short arms and people lacking movement or strength in their hands or arms.

Failing to recognise service users as sexual beings confirms to them that their bodies are simply a part of them which experiences pain and causes them inconvenience and embarrassment. Some even feel their bodies don’t belong to them. They may need support to gain body confidence, acceptance and pride.

Once a little sexual confidence is achieved, they may be ready for sex: perhaps first with a professional to learn what their bodies are capable of and how to please a partner. They may need support to access services (for example, though the TLC website which provides opportunities, advice and support to disabled adults so they can find appropriate sexual and therapeutic services). Offering such support is not against the law. In fact, it is discriminatory to a disabled person not to support them to enjoy what others enjoy in the privacy of their own homes.

They may need a little support then to start dating. OnlineDatingExperts provides a good guide and there are clubs and special interest groups and online forums. The club I set up, Outsiders, provides peer support and dating in a secure online clubhouse. One of our patrons gave this advice to disabled men who feel nervous about approaching a woman:

“Finding a lover/partner is all about maximising circumstance: make them laugh; be very polite, and figure out what they want and give it to them. A wheelchair does not come into the equation. Few say they want someone to climb Everest with them. Usually, they want respect, appreciation, someone to listen, but overall the best aphrodisiac is laughter. Make her/him feel like the centre of the universe.”

Outsiders has been thriving for 34 years, providing socially and physically disabled people with support as well as safe dating opportunities at both social events and online, yet some disabled people are still too afraid to join up. Stars in the Sky (a website for friendship and dating for people with learning disabilities) and clubs such as Beautiful Octopus are designed for learning disabled people but there are sadly no dating clubs for people with mental health problems and acquired brain injury.

As you can imagine, when disabled people start to enjoy sexual pleasure, they become much happier and will be far easier and more delightful to work with. You will see the looks of joy on their faces as they find sexual happiness and perhaps fall in love.

One gay disabled man who found mutual love with a man he was having wild sex with, spoke of his delight that he’d found someone to care for (mentally not physically) after having been cared for all his life. However impaired, disabled people find ingenious ways to give pleasure to another human being and many settle down in relationships.

Tuppy Owens is the founder of Outsiders, a group providing peer support and dating opportunities for physically and socially disabled people. She also set up the Sexual Health and Disability Alliance (SHADA) for health and social care professionals. She has worked with and supported disabled people with their sexual lives for over 35 years.

Her book Supporting Disabled People with their Sexual Lives is published by Jessica Kingsley this month (November 2014).